To “The Joy of Tech”: I am not amused.

The Joy of Tech sees fit to use pop-under advertisements, which is blatantly antagonistic to users. Advertisements can be tolerated—I would use ads too if I ran a site as busy as theirs—but pop-up and pop-under ads are malicious:

  • they actively disregard the user’s desires–the user did nothing to request such an ad
  • they (often) deliberately work around the user’s attempts to block such ads

This is analogous to breaking and entering into my house. If Jehovah’s Witnesses come and knock on my door, and I don’t feel up to explaining to them why and how their beliefs fly in the face of logic and contradict historical facts, they’re at least not going to break down my door to talk to me. They respect my intentions, and eventually give up knocking and go somewhere else. The thief who breaks into my house, on the other hand, is acting in the wrong

  • not because of the fact that he enters my house,
  • not because he enters without my knowledge
  • not because of the techniques he uses to open the door
    but solely because he enters against my wishes.

Let me give a few examples to illustrate that these statements are true. Lots of people enter my house, so entering my house is obviously not, in and of itself, a problem. If I were selling my house I might leave a lockbox on the door for any realtors who want to show the house to potential buyers. I wouldn’t always know who was showing the house at any time, but that would be okay. And lastly, I might accidentally lock myself out of my house and break into it using the same techniques a thief might use. If a policeman drove by and saw me, I might wave “hello” to him and explain that I live in that house, and pull out my driver’s license to prove it.

So all of this demonstrates one thing: it is the wishes of the owner that determines what is okay and what is not. Violating my wishes by entering my home is punishable by law. Violating my wishes by pushing advertisements that I didn’t request down to me ought to be punishable by law, but for the time being we need to do something ourselves about it. Telling the thief that he has to leave is not enough, we want to throw him in jail. That is we want some consequences that are worse than simply foiling his attempt to break in. In the case of the web site, we want something worse than just what pop-up blockers can provide. Otherwise what incentive could they possibly have to stop?

Instead of simply blocking pop-up and pop-under advertisements, we should think about blocking all sites that use them. Treat them as spammers, since that is essentially what they are.

The first step is to make it easy for any individual to block all such sites. A central list that anyone can download and make use of would be a start. Use this list as a simple hosts file which sends all requests to such sites as (and their kind) to dev/null, as it were (probably actually to some unused IP address like

There are many ad-blocking lists (distributed as Firefox extensions, for instance) that could be used as examples. An extension could be created for Firefox users to automatically download and use the list, but Safari and Opera users could still use the list as a hosts file.

The next step would be to ad support for blocking this form of malware (that is, blocking the site, not just the pop-ups) to products that block other forms of malware. They could, upon visiting (etc.) say “You are requesting a site that is known to push pop-up advertisements to users. They actively try to circumvent pop-up blockers, so it is possible that they might get around our latest blocking techniques. Do you want to continue? Yes or no.” This will in the very least hold the offending sites accountable. (Oftentimes you never know where that Netflix ad came from. By the time you find it, you’ve long since left, and they get away with it.)

The other thing to do is to stop doing business with the companies that place the ads. I’ve dropped my Netflix membership, and there’s a good chance I’ll never go back. iTunes is making them less valuable, and I think we’ve already seen everything they have that’s worth watching anyway. So new stuff can be gotten digitally, and they can go the way of Blockbuster.

Explore posts in the same categories: Random Nonsense, Software, Technology, This Electronic Life, Usability, Web Site Problems

2 Comments on “To “The Joy of Tech”: I am not amused.”

  1. snaggyfromjot Says:

    Hi Brandon,

    About a year ago we turned off the pop-up ads hoping that donations or SuperFandom might pick up the slack. That was what many people wanted us to do, and many said they would support us in other ways if we did so. Unfortunately, the support just didn’t come in, and we’ve had to re-institute the evil pop-ups. When we did, most people on our forums said it was worth the odd hassle.

    I hate them too, but the reality is, it’s what we have to do to keep in business. These pop-ups and pop-under pay better than the regular ads, and unfortunately, we need this money to keep our site running and to live on.

    Many people have pop-up filters turned on in their browser, and in most cases those take care of the problem. Not every person is served pop-ups or pop-unders, the majority of people won’t get them, as by far the vast majority of ads served by Tribal Fusion (the ad company who sells much of our ad space) are not pop-ups or pop-unders. And if they do get one of these ads, it’s supposed to be only once in a 24 hour period.

    Try to look at them as like the annoying commercials you often have to watch during a televison show. The commercials are necessary in order to fund the production of the show. And most people reach for the mute button.

    I do hope you can forgive us for the odd annoyance. We are constantly looking for other sources of income and sponsorship, perhaps one day soon we’ll be able to turn them off for good. I for one will be cheering that day too.


  2. Hi Snaggy, I appreciate your input.

    However, you addressed this as a purely practical matter, and avoided the ethics involved. If someone broke into my house to steal food because his family would starve (and he thought that he had no other alternative, which of course would be false) I would certainly respond differently than otherwise. That wouldn’t make it okay to do, but I’d be more inclined to not press charges (or recommend a milder sentence), and encourage appropriate forms of counseling to help him get out of the perceived financial trap that led him to steal.

    Now the analogy with breaking and entering is not intended to imply that the offense is the same in magnitude, but rather that it is the same in principle.

    If so many of your forum members have stated that they accept having pop-up ads, why don’t you make it opt-in? Ask people the first time they visit your site (or any time they visit and you don’t find the cookie which shows the choice they made) and explain that infrequent pop-ups, which they are welcome to try to block, are necessary to support the site. Ask them if they will put up with this in order to keep the site alive. Save their response in a cookie, and then in the future only show pop-ups if the cookie says its okay.

    There are still problems with this, in that we have no way of knowing if what you say is true, and if it works then every other site using pop-ups will start to claim that it’s necessary to keep them alive (which might really mean it’s necessary to fuel their yachts), but at least it does not push things onto our computers which we did not request, and in many cases are trying to block.

    The other issue you did not directly address (though perhaps indirectly by mentioning tribal fusion) is that of getting around pop-up blockers. I’m using Safari 3—the latest version—with pop-up blocking enabled. Why did I still get the pop-under!? If you are actively trying to subvert my blocking of pop-ups, this is especially malicious.

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